Pollution And Recreation On The Big Sioux

Jul 11, 2016

Water testing on the Big Sioux River shows high levels of bacteria and pollution in some areas. The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources recommends only having limited contact with the water, meaning they don’t suggest swimming in it.

But the city of Sioux Falls continues to build parks and recreation areas along the river, in the effort to foster economic development.

Along the banks of the Big Sioux River, Kevin Christenson dips a container into the water. Another member from the East Dakota Water Development District throws a testing meter further upstream.

Kevin Christenson collects a water sample from the middle of a stretch of the Big Sioux.
Credit Erin Mairose

Testing like this also shows this year the river’s nitrate levels exceed the drinking water standard in parts of the lower basin.  Jay Gilbertson manages the water testing. He says water quality hasn’t changed a lot over the years. The Big Sioux still has elevated levels of suspended solids, or sediment, and bacteria like e coli. These levels are so high in many areas they surpass state and federal guidelines for safe swimming.

“I would not go swimming in the Big Sioux River right now. The bacteria levels are too high most of the time,” says Gilbertson. 

Further upstream from the testing site is Falls Park, where water crashes over the quartz rock.  

Melissa Herris is here with her three daughters.

“When I was a kid and we would come back here this place was a mess.  I mean they hadn’t cleaned it up and you didn’t come here. You didn’t know what you were going to step on, but they’ve really done a beautiful fixing this up,” says Herris.

The Big Sioux remains polluted with sediment and bacteria.
Credit Erin Mairose / Big Sioux River, water quality

The Big Sioux River runs throughout the heart of Sioux Falls. Much of the river has a greenway on either side with landscaping and sidewalks.

But Jay Gilbertson says the city’s efforts to improve recreation along the water doesn’t exactly reflect what’s happening under the surface.

“Revitalizing the greenway, building steps, it's kind of a bit of a disconnect because you’re inviting people to come down to look at and interact with water that by all measuring you really shouldn’t be interacting with, and that’s something that may be the different between development and  conservation or what have you,” Gilbertson says.

Water quality warnings don’t keep everyone out of the water. On a hot afternoon kayakers carry their boats to the edge of the Big Sioux near Brandon. 

One of those here today is Cory Deidrich. He's a kayaking instructor who teaches kids and adults how to safely paddle on moving water. He says avoiding the water isn’t going to improve water quality. Instead, he says, to increase awareness and make people care about the water, they have to use it.

The Sioux Empire Paddlers prepare to kayak in the Big Sioux near Brandon.
Credit Erin Mairose / Sioux Empire Paddlers, Kayaking

“The state is recognizing this is a valuable resource, the city of Sioux Falls is obviously recognized with the amount of money they’ve put into the river greenway and the effort they’ve made to make that a focal point of our city, and it does goes throughout the entire city so that’s outstanding- but we do know it’s not perfect and we do know we’re in an agricultural area and farmers and ranchers utilize the river too. We utilize it recreational purposes and they utilize it as a business, or have effects to it that way,” says Deidrich.

Deidrich is with the group Sioux Empire Paddlers. He says group is proposing a white water park in the Big Sioux.

“Play waves and structures and eddy lines- that’s the first part of what really began with the Sioux Empire Paddler group. The second part, which is really taking off, is the educational piece,” says Deidrich.

Deidrich has been paddling on this water for over 10 years. He says some cleanup efforts are working, but there’s still a long ways to go.

“If you’re out, you can find bicycles, cattle water tanks, air conditioners. If you want to find something just look in the Big Sioux, you’ll find it unfortunately along with that just all sorts of garbage. Actually I’m standing on a children’s cheer pom pom” says Deidrich.

Trash along a muddy bank of the Big Sioux River.
Credit Erin Mairose

Despite the trash in the river, Deidrich is optimistic about solutions. Programs are getting more landowners to put in grass buffer strips along waterways to reduce runoff from ag land. And other programs are aimed at keeping cattle out of the water. 

Senate bill 136 was proposed during the 2016 legislative session. 

“It would encourage the landowners and the producers upriver to look at their procedures and how they’re doing drainage from their pastures and all that into the river.”

Spencer Hawley is a representative from Brookings County. During the past legislative session, he sponsored a bill to give landowners a tax break for planting natural grass buffer strips.  The bill was vetoed by Governor Dennis Daugaard. But Hawley plans to reintroduce the bill again in the 2017 session. 

“If you put a 55 buffer along the river and the waterways, atleast they’re not spraying right up to the edge of it with pesticides and herbicides and you’re not getting the direct runoff into the water, so it would help in the filtering process for the water quality,” says Hawley.

Back on the water testing site near Yankton Trails Park in Sioux Falls, Jay Gilbertson and member from the East Dakota Water Development District finishing collecting samples. Gilbertson says the bill to add buffer strips is a step in the right direction. But he says voluntary programs aren’t going to persuade all landowners to change practices.

Gilbertson says there’s hesitancy when it comes to the idea of enforcement. He says until that changes, meeting water quality standards is still a long ways off.

“In a watershed that is largely agricultural, it is going to be difficult to reduce the inputs to the point where all the water quality standards-all the beneficial uses-can be met. That isn’t necessary an indictment of agriculture, it’s a reflection of the reality of what’s going on,” says Gilbertson.

For now, people in Sioux Falls will continue to kayak and recreate alongside a river that many hope has a cleaner future.